Eustace’s single helps Hoosiers walk off winners vs. Kentucky, 3-2 #iubase

The anticipation provided comfort to Laren Eustace.

He sat in Indiana’s third base dugout waiting his turn — waiting for an opportunity that was never guaranteed. A late-inning replacement during much of his freshman season last spring, Eustace had been in this situation before.

Although this time, when his name was called with the winning run waiting on third base in the bottom of the ninth, perhaps the stakes were a bit higher than they had been in the past.

Yet, with a cool stroke against a letter-high fastball, Eustace lined a single into centerfield and drove in Austin Cangelosi to give the Hoosiers a 3-2 walk-off win over Kentucky on Tuesday at Bart Kaufman Field.

“I was ready the whole game,” Eustace said.

Indeed, he stepped in as a pinch hitter for Bloomington North product Colby Stratten with one out in the final inning and delivered a crucial win for the surging Hoosiers (29-17).

Beyond the sentimental factor of toppling border rival Kentucky in walk-off fashion, the win gives another boost to IU’s postseason resume. Entering the week with an RPI teetering at No. 101, Tuesday represented another victory over a top-50 opponent. Kentucky (29-20) entered the game at No. 45 in the RPI.

It also keeps first-place Indiana’s late-season momentum rolling into this weekend’s Big Ten series against Illinois.

“It just makes tomorrow better, it makes practice better, it helps our resume and it also helps us go into the weekend with a feel-good mentality,” IU coach Chris Lemonis said.

Once again, Indiana swung back against a pair of deficits before prevailing late. This, in a supposed rebuilding year for the program, is Indiana baseball — whippy and undaunted.

Kentucky leadoff man Zach Reks drove in both of Kentucky’s runs, striking with a single to center against IU starter Jonathan Stiever in the top of the third before swatting a solo home run on the first pitch thrown by Hoosier reliever B.J. Sabol in the top of the sixth.

But there was Indiana in the bottom half of each of those innings — collecting two-out RBI singles on both occasions.

Ryan Fineman put Indiana on the board in the third, lifting a fly ball to right field that allowed Alex Krupa to score. In the sixth, pinch hitter Scotty Bradley singled to left to drive in Cangelosi and knot the game at 2-2.

In the meantime, Indiana pitchers stitched together one of their finer staff outings of the year. Stiever was decent during the game’s first 2 1/3 innings, reliever Luke Stephenson threw 24 of his 31 pitches for strikes and retired all eight batters he faced, Sabol bounced back from the homer to Reks and tossed two strong innings and Thomas Belcher worked out of a first-and-third situation in the ninth to preserve the stage for Eustace.

“That was the best we’ve had Stephenson all year, I think,” Lemonis said. “He was really good. That was exciting. Thomas was Thomas, and B.J. — that’s what we had this weekend. He was pretty good. He threw one bad pitch, but settled back in and competed. I thought Jonathan was good early.”

Cangelosi put a good swing on a 2-0 fastball to lead off the ninth, mashing the ball to the wall in left field. Off the bat, the ball appeared to have enough to clear the fence, but Cangelosi gladly settled for the double.

With zero outs, Lemonis briefly considered inserting Eustace for Luke Miller so that he could lay down a bunt to sacrifice Cangelosi to third. Eustace was ready at that point, standing in the dugout with his helmet on and waiting for the go-ahead nod from his coach.

“He was thinking about bunting,” Lemonis said. “We flipped it on him. I’m glad I didn’t bunt him.”

Instead, Lemonis let Miller swing away, and the IU freshman grounded to the right side and advanced Cangelosi to third base anyway.

That put Kentucky coach Gary Henderson in a tactical mood. He went to his bullpen for right-hander Justin Lewis and called in Reks from left field and positioned him in the middle of the diamond as a fifth infielder.

“I think they thought Laren hits a lot of ground balls,” Lemonis said. “You’re trying to tighten it up at that point. We were going to run right there on contact.”

Turns out, Cangelosi was in no rush to get home. With a defiant swing on a 1-0 fastball, Eustace stuck the pitch where neither of Kentucky’s two remaining outfielders could get it in straight centerfield and gave the Hoosiers the midweek win over a quality non-conference opponent that they very much wanted.

“I just wanted to see a fastball and hit it as hard as I could somewhere,” Eustace said. “It worked out the right way. That’s all I can ask for.”

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